Home Studio Recordist
Geoff Mitcham's account of how he set up his own mobile recording studio.
Calling all home recordists... Here's a golden opportunity to pass on those brilliant tricks you've discovered to turn your cassette deck into a fully-blown 48 track recorder!
Well, not quite... but these columns are devoted to what you, the reader, have to say about your own method of recording, your equipment or maybe your experiences in a pro studio. So write and tell us about these or any other aspect of your recording and you may well find yourself occupying these pages.
This month Geoff Mitcham explains how he started recording and the events that led up to the creation of his Baku Mobile Recording Studio.
The dream really began back in 1963 when I received my first guitar as a present. It was only a cheap acoustic that cost £5 but it put me on the right road and I soon changed it for an electric. I had previously learned violin at school so I had a good grounding in music and the guitar wasn't difficult to learn by comparison.
I passed through a few local bands without much success, but stuck with it through the Beatles/Stones era, was heavily into the blues of the late 60s, didn't do much in the 70s, and by the time we reached the electric 80s I found myself too old to get back into it. Especially as I had never left the R&B/Rock'n' Roll era of the early 60s behind in my style of playing. I then decided on a different direction altogether and concentrated on helping a songwriter friend of mine produce his songs and record them on an old Sony reel-to-reel and begged or borrowed equipment.
The frustration of never achieving a professional result lead to a determination that one day I would have such facilities, especially since my one ambition since 1963 was to make a record. An ambition that has eluded me throughout my musical career and seemed to get further away the older I got. I read somewhere that failed rock stars either fade away or become recording engineers. I chose the latter because music will always be a part of my life and it was a way to achieve my ambition, even if it was from a different side of the glass.
The problem was raising the money. It took a year of research, hassling banks, re-writing projects and overcoming the prejudices against the music business before I got my hands on it. It wasn't as much as I originally wanted but, after careful budgeting, it was enough.
I chose to go mobile simply because I didn't have the premises to do otherwise. The overheads worked out a lot less and I was very central for a large area stretching from Bristol to Gloucester to Reading to Southampton to Taunton. This area also includes Bath, Salisbury, Swindon, Newbury and Cheltenham, so I figured if I could offer a cheap enough service that offered quality and friendliness, I could hit a lot of very large towns and cities. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out quite that way but that's another story...
The first job was to buy an old caravan and convert it. I was going to use a Transit van but decided it would be too cramped and claustrophobic. It was also very convenient to drop the caravan off and set up for recording and still be mobile for a quick run to the chip shop!
To convert it I decided that soundproofing was too expensive and I proceeded to line the walls with Rockwool, which has worked very well. However, most of the sound now escapes through the floor, especially the bass, which annoys the neighbours on a quiet Sunday afternoon. I will sort this out in time though. I pulled out most of the furniture but left one seat that converts to a double bed in case I have to stay overnight. I also left the toilet compartment, a must on long sessions! I built in shelves to support a mixing desk and speakers and am still trying to design a permanent fixing for the recording equipment.
The next job was to find the equipment to fit my budget. I had a list already written of what I wanted, complete with second choices. I found the mixing desk, an RSD Studiomaster 16:8:2, for sale locally as part of a deal which included a pair of Tannoy SRM10Bs, a Revox B77 and four Calrec mics. I didn't want to stretch to the Tannoys at that stage but once I'd heard them working I just had to have them.
I then went looking for an 8 track machine. I learned not to take any notice of adverts that mention secondhand equipment because when you ring it's never there. However, it is a good idea to ring the large dealers to see what they have in stock, but be prepared for having to go for your second choice and price differences cocking up your budget. Also be prepared for hassles.
I spent a day in London with £2000 burning a hole in my pocket but I had a great problem spending it. I had already found a Teac 80-8 recorder with DX8 noise reduction and vari-speed which was supposed to be ready on the day I visited the dealer so that we could settle the deal. However, when I arrived I found there were complications with getting the parts and no one seemed particularly bothered about it. I was promised the machine in another week, then another two weeks, and in the end it was eight weeks which put the launch date of my studio back a whole month and lost me a considerable amount of work because my promotional material had already gone out. So beware of false promises.
Consequently, on the day I was in London, I wanted to buy a GBS Reverb, Fostex Compressor and patchbay. I asked the right questions but after my upset about the 80-8 I wasn't overkeen to spend any more money with the same dealer who didn't seem very interested in selling me anything either. After a few other dead ends, I ended up at another dealer who also looked at me as if I was something the cat had dragged in! However, by this time, I was determined to part with some money and, after twisting the guy's arm, he conceded to sell me the goods. I wasn't, however, prepared for the suspicion that everyone has for business cheques. I couldn't take anything with me as the cheque had to be cleared first. My general opinion of the main dealers is one of uninterest in the small man. I think their attitude might have been different though if I was completely re-equipping a 24 track studio!
The 80-8 recorder was, in fact, my second choice, my first being an Otari 50/50 Mk2 which I missed by two weeks because banks won't hurry themselves when making decisions. However, I don't regret my purchase as it's worked extremely well and I find I use the varispeed more than I thought I would. I had looked at the Tascam 38 and, although it is a nice machine, I thought there was too much plastic and I didn't think anyone would take me seriously with a Fostex A8. The RSD desk was always my first choice because it looked good and it did all the things the larger desks do but at a fraction of the price.
I didn't go for too many effects as I just didn't have the money. A good reverb was needed and compressors obviously. My next buy will have to be a digital delay though, as there have been so many times when I needed one. I can borrow or hire in some effects so it isn't a big problem at the moment. Another purchase must also be a line of signal splitters. I've found that not all PA companies have them built in to their desks, which can prove difficult if you have to mike everything up in duplicate with the PA guys when recording a gig. Everyone gets in everyone else's way and there is a spaghetti of cables all over the stage.
Instrument-wise, I've found a niche in recording synth-based music and can lay my hands on various drum machines, a Roland SH-101, Korg Poly 800, Moog Rogue and Solina String Machine. Unfortunately, I had to sell my beloved '62 Fender Strat to stay in business, but I have a Columbus 'Jazz Bass' copy which works well. I do like to rely on my clients supplying their own instruments though, as transportation can sometimes be a headache.
The studio is quiet at the moment although I hope business will pick up soon. The summer recession hit very hard but I have been lucky to do some prestigious jobs, such as recording Prefab Sprout at the Hacienda Club in Manchester for the BBC. That was a very exciting gig.
I also recently did some work for the Womad Foundation at their recent festival in Bristol, which included Toto La Monposina and Rumillajta. At the same event I also recorded Antonio and Edwardo who were a hit at Glastonbury and the Elephant Fayre.
The excitement of a live gig is something else but, unless you have control of the situation, it can be disastrous. Normal studio recording is a lot safer and I'm lucky to get a chance to do both.
I hope to get involved with other areas of the business, such as management and starting my own label. I also want to upgrade to 16 track at the earliest convenience and I hope to do that without having to increase my rates a great deal. At the moment I charge a basic £5 per hour, plus tapes and VAT, or £60 per 8 hour day all in, providing it's within my area. I'm always open to negotiation, especially to the very poor, as my main purpose is to help those musos get the chances I didn't get, and at a price that won't rip them oft.
Further details concerning Baku Mobile Recording can be obtained directly from Geoff. (Contact Details).
Feature by Geoff Mitcham
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